TAMPA — Blue Sky Communities has partnered with Hillsborough County to make another dent in the county's rising demand for affordable housing, opening Sweetwater Villas in Tampa's Drew Park just west of Dale Mabry Highway.
Officials recently celebrated with new residents at the 56-unit complex, 4152 N Lois Ave. The apartments include three bedroom/two bath and two bedroom/two bath options and have tile throughout, along with energy-efficient appliances in the kitchen and laundry rooms.
"They are really beautiful and they're in a nice location," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, who noted that the larger units are more square feet than her Seminole Heights bungalow.
"The places are so nice. I can totally envision myself living there."
Some units are designated for people with disabilities. Sweetwater Villas also offers units for people transitioning out of homelessness and those with hearing or visual disabilities.
The development came about in part through a $4.5 million grant. The moeny helped make possible amenities found in more expensive complexes, such as a community center, playground and pond for exploring.
Blue Sky president Shawn Wilson said the amenities helped meet the original intention of the federal government's 1986 low-income housing tax credit.
"The original intent of (the tax credit) was to build housing that's indistinguishable from market rate housing," Wilson said. "More importantly, it makes the properties nice and the residents want to keep them nice.
"People are proud to live there, they become better members of the community and the surrounding neighborhood. When it has amenities and looks nice, it doesn't bring the property value down."
Some developers work on more lucrative projects with rental rates that start at $1,500 and climb above $3,000, but Blue Sky has worked to meet the affordable housing demand.
The company carried out a $5 million renovation of Silver Lakes, a complex near Sweetwater Villas, and completed a 120-unit in Brandon last year. In a partnership with Metropolitan Ministries, Blue Sky is set to start work on a project in Mango.
"I want to help folks who deserve help," Wilson said. "To me, there are plenty of options for people who can afford $1,500 or $2,000 a month. But there are thousands of hard working folks that are in one of two situations.
"They're either in really bad housing situations in high crime neighborhoods where the apartment is not properly managed, or it's old with no amenities. Or, they're stretching themselves to pay that $1,500. Both of those groups deserve the best of both worlds."
Economists say families should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing, but some are spending 50 percent.
Sweetwater Villas is already filled to capacity with a growing waiting list. It's a clear sign of the demand for affordable housing.
However, providing these accommodations is growing more difficult as the state Legislature finds other uses for a trust fund set aside to meet the need.
Kemp said the fund, known as The Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust, should have delivered $11 million to Hillsborough County. Instead, the county received only $1.3 million.
One of the programs the fund pays for, the State Housing Initiative Partnership, has seen its funding for Hillsborough County decrease by 79 percent.
"It's been horrible," said Kemp, who received approval from the commission to draft a letter calling for restoration of Sadowski funds.
The Legislature, she said, "has just been callous and uncaring about how people are suffering across the state. They've just turned their back on these critical needs."
Wilson said the decline in state and federal dollars heightens the competition among all the affordable housing developers.
"That's a negative situation for everybody involved," Wilson said. "There's enough demand in this county for all of the players to be able to develop housing and have them fill up right away."
Contact Ernest Hooper at email@example.com. Follow him at @hoop4you.